Top ten metal/hard rock albums of 2019

In this, the year of our Lord 2019, I never thought I would find myself typing these words, but here we go: Rammstein created one of the best music videos of 2019. Now let me back up. The German outfit has been around for so long, it is sometimes hard to remember that there was a time when bands like Rammstein and Marilyn Manson were truly terrifying to a subset of parents and teachers. It was a different time, and as the Internet changed everything we know about religion, sex, politics, and personal boundaries, bands like these began to seem less and less important to people who now had to worry about their eight-year-old kids stumbling across hardcore porn  after clicking an innocent-looking link on a Geocities Pokemon fan site. Rammstein’s music always seemed purposely engineered to spark controversy, but by the time the group was packaging dildos with their new albums, it was all a little stale. Their low-budget videos didn’t seem so much thought-provoking or subversive, as they did a bunch of people in the active process of learning that art and taboo were not actually the same thing, and that pissing people off for the sake of it was an amateur’s game.

The music was one thing: Richard Kruspe is practically incapable of not writing a massive, chugging riff, but Till Lindemann’s message got muddled, and the band’s means of expression seemed hampered by their desire to first and foremost, provoke. Inevitably, intentions backfired after right-wing groups started co-opting their music, prompting the band to spell out their left-leaning political views and politely asking Nazis to get lost. Indeed, it’s like Rammstein has been waiting 25 years for someone with a better means of communication to corral all the interesting things they had to say in a meaningful way. That someone is Specter Berlin, and on March 28, he released “Deutschland” into the world.

Like all Rammstein videos, it is dark, violent, and makes for uncomfortable viewing. But due to the careful cinematography, its beauty makes it brutally remarkable. I cannot think of a music video that better captures what it is like to live in the ruins of a crumbling empire, of what it is like to love the freedoms and opportunities your country has given you, while knowing the truth of how those freedoms and opportunities were won. While watching those freedoms and opportunities narrow for more and more people. As Lee Seymour writes, ““Deutschland” makes clear [the band’s] intention: not to exploit or glorify, but to excoriate their homeland’s history of violent nationalism.” The video is a brief historical chronology of all of Germany’s worst moments, from the Middle Ages, to the Weimar Republic, and through two World Wars and the Iron Curtain. It does not sugarcoat, condone, or hide the atrocities committed by Germans against others and their own people (there are some great YouTube videos breaking the scenes down, for all my fellow history nerds). All this, set to words almost childlike in their simplicity, expressing the difficulty of reconciling the desire to take pride in one’s country, with that same country’s dark history. Is it possible when the future doesn’t look any brighter, when over and over again, we see that these fundamental evils have never really gone away, and return to the mainstream in almost clock-like cycles? You don’t have to be German to get it, though keeping up with current events helps. We are at a point in history when inroads are being made to rectify mistakes of the past, when responsibilities are being taken, but we are also at a point when a man who supports white supremacy lives in the White House.

These are scary times indeed, and making art of it is a tricky tightrope, one that I do not think Rammstein was capable of 15 or 10 years ago. For example, even their other recent attempts have been a bit dodgy, with follow-up song and video for “Auslander” making its point, but in a clumsy, cringey way (all you need is the shot of the butterfly being meticulously cataloged, studied and then slammed between the pages of the book — that’s it. Fin.). But “Deutschland,” both the song and video, manages to capture the shallowness, the fear, the confusion, the reckoning, the impossible reconciliation, and the unfulfilled promise of progress in a brief ten minutes. That doesn’t even begin to touch upon how great the music itself works to highlight all of these beats: the rhythmic verses, the chilly delivery of the chorus, the synths that journey in and out of the music like the red lights threaded throughout the video, connecting all of history, all of one nation’s self-contained life from the womb to outer space, while weaving in the band’s personal history through nods to past lyrics and imagery. It all works together like one great whole, like all of the world itself, self-contained by one action leading to the next, from one continent to another, like ripples on the massive timeline of world history. By the time the end credits, with its funereal take on “Sonne,” begins, as we watch one last macabre montage of devastating footage, all you can do is take one deep, collective breath and sigh, as Berlin wraps up with a mournful humble-brag of somber, haunting shots. As Leonid  Bershidsky concludes, “The discussion about the video is really about what’s bubbling close to the surface here — and about the importance of awareness, and bitter irony, in keeping the lid on.”

So is Rammstein’s self-titled the best metal album of the year? Nah. It’s bogged down by a particularly slow second half, and there are definitely other albums that have a stronger track-by-track presence, such as the critic-panned Resist by Within Temptation, one of my most-played albums of the year (I think I am the only person on this planet who didn’t hate this album). There are certainly more cerebral albums, like Atlantean Kodex’s The Course of Empire, and more fun albums like the insanely cheesy and quixotic throwback-metal of Beast in Black’s From Hell with Love. There are are more technical albums like Aephanemer’s Prokopton, and darker, comfort-haunts like Idle Hands’s Mana. They all have a place on this list, a small piece of the variety and surprises that await us in metal every year (and don’t forget to check out a few more on our debut list). But to my mind, nothing beats the enormity and accomplishment of “Deutschland,” which is why it is so disappointing to me that many had already dismissed this dinosaur of a band, due in part to their less-than-graceful past, and are missing out on one of the most honest and important musical statements of 2019.

Within Temptation: Resist // Aephanemer: Prokopton

Rammstein: Rammstein // Idle Hands: Mana

Screamer: Highway of Heroes // Dayseeker: Sleeptalk

Diviner: Realms of Time // Atlantean Kodex: The Course of Empire

Beast in Black: From Hell with Love // Black Therapy: Echoes of Dying Memories

Honorable Mentions

Riot City: Burn the Night
Stormhammer: Seven Seals
Dream State: Primrose Path
Lacuna Coil: Black Anima
Gygax: High Fantasy